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Car dealership workers help to sway Saanich council on zoning for Douglas Street

A steady stream of Volkswagen Victoria workers, many wearing VW-emblazoned shirts, told council how important the dealership was to them.
The Volkswagen Victoria dealership on Douglas Street, seen in 2019. GOOGLE STREET VIEW

The head of the GAIN auto group is crediting staff at Volkswagen Victoria with protecting the viability of the business.

GAIN partner Peter Trzewik said the personal and emotional pleas of his staff to Saanich council Tuesday night were the difference in convincing council to take another look at a zoning bylaw amendment that would have meant one of their properties could no longer be used as a car dealership.

“It’s only because of the people from the dealership that pleaded the case,” he said, noting it was never the plan to have a stream of employees address council. “We only had a very few speakers scheduled to speak. This wasn’t a tactic, this was them doing it.”

A steady stream of Volkswagen Victoria workers, many wearing VW-emblazoned shirts, told council how important the dealership was to them, how the GAIN group had given them a chance to prove themselves, how important a good-paying job is in an expensive city and how the dealership is more like a family than a business.

Each of them asked council not to jeopardize the business and their livelihoods by passing a bylaw amendment that would prohibit automobile sales in what’s known as the Douglas East Highway Commercial Zone, without including 3319 Douglas St. in the mix of existing automobile dealers that are excluded from the bylaw.

Trzewik said he is grateful to staff who showed up at 7 p.m. and sat in very warm council chambers for four hours before they had a chance to address council.

He believes many of them were inspired to speak after watching young people address council earlier on Tuesday in support of a new housing project in Gordon Head.

“I think they could see how much difference a person makes when they speak from the heart,” he said. “It makes way more impact than a lawyer or a developer going up and having a slick presentation. I think our staff just picked up on that, and said, ‘well, I may as well just say what I feel.’ ”

Council had intended that the amended bylaw would allow existing dealers in the Uptown-­Douglas area, bordered by Douglas and Blanshard streets and Tolmie Avenue and Saanich Road, to continue to operate. No new car lots could be established.

The problem was that 3319 Douglas St. was not licenced as a car lot and not among the 14 properties allowed to retain the old zoning.

Trzewik said 3319 Douglas St. was recently purchased by the GAIN Group, but has been used since 2007 as a lot to sell new and used vehicles through Volkswagen Victoria. He argued that it should be deemed an existing dealership.

GAIN, which operates Volkswagen Victoria at 3329 Douglas St., hopes at some point to build a new Volkswagen dealership on the two sites.

“Our dealership truly is on too small of a footprint to function properly,” he said, of the need to use 3319 Douglas. “So without that lot council would’ve made a decision that we can’t service as many customers, which means we can’t have as many employees and so on.”

The pleas made an impact, with councillors Nathalie Chambers, Karen Harper, Susan Brice, Judy Brownoff and Colin Plant all voting to have 3319 Douglas St. removed from the properties to be affected by the new zone and to have a new public hearing scheduled to have the bylaw amended.

Chambers said not including 3319 Douglas was tantamount to evicting the business from the lot.

“I’m so disappointed that we are considering removing people out of their jobs. We have a problem in Saanich with housing, we have a problem with people that are homeless, we have these existing problems, and yet what are we doing? We’re basically slowly evicting our local residents,” she said.

Harper said she agrees with the principles behind the Uptown-Douglas strategy that envisions a new city centre for the district in that area with mixed-use, residential living, animated streets and active transportation, but she was under the impression they were also trying to preserve automobile businesses. “And with all due respect to everyone in the room, no matter what they have said to me, I am compelled by the fact that there’s clearly a very vibrant business running that is dependent on this site.”

Harper said she wants to stay the course on the corridor, and just adding this one piece of land to the list of existing car dealers. “I think the bigger risk is that we could be harming a business that’s currently working and working well,” she said.

Brice said she has come to realize 3319 Douglas St. should have been included in that list in the first place.

Coun. Zac de Vries, who along with Coun. Teale Phelps Bondaroff and Mayor Dean Murdock was on the losing side of the vote, said he was voting to protect the vision for Uptown-Douglas.

He said the proliferation of older approaches to car dealerships is not in alignment with the vision of the district’s downtown.

“I hope that Volkswagen and GAIN group understand that we’re taking a substantial risk in terms of the broader community vision that came out of more than seven years of public engagement,” he said after the vote. “That’s my sincere hope that there will be a long-term commitment to the agreed upon trajectory and vision of the Uptown-Douglas Plan.”

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